Perhaps it takes living a wandering, bouncing-from-home-to-home early life like Billy Olson lived to really appreciate how good it is to have a community take you under its wing. And when Olson repays a debt, you get it back 100 percent, with interest added.
By Jason D.B. Kauffmann
Photography by Elizabeth Belts Kauffmann
In return for the community support that led the once elite skinny-tire bike racer to make Hailey his first permanent home 20 years ago, Billy Olson has shared the ideas borne from his time afloat, ideas that have time and again become the basis for something the valley has come to love. The most notable feat has been his contribution to the Sun Valley fat-tire biking scene.
With 435 miles of continuous single-track trails woven around the valley, the stage was set. Still, few would disagree that Olson has done the lion's share of work to put the area's mountain biking allures on the map.
From his one-of-a-kind, custom-built bikes that sell for thousands of dollars to the countless hours spent as a race promoter making sure an event goes off without a hitch, Olson is a touchstone. Zipping around town with his mobile bike-repair trailer, helping track down spare parts so a local kid can build a mountain bike on the cheap or giving advice to an up-and-coming bike racer, again, Olson's the man.
Long held as a local's secret, Olson's ventures have been getting attention in the national press with even greater regularity since he established the Powerhouse restaurant and bike shop in Hailey in 2009, an outpost for all things bike related.
Notoriously anti-self-promotion, Olson told the Idaho Mountain Express then that opening his dream come true just made sense.
"People used to always bring six-packs into the bike shop while we worked on bikes anyway, and we all worked nights at restaurants."
Features in Outside, Bicycling and other major magazines have added cachet to the informal marketing that has made Olson a fountainhead of information.
Asking around the valley unearths many Billy Olson followers.
Eric Rector, director of trails for the Blaine County Recreation District, is one of them.
"Anything to do with cycling at all, from running kids camps to figuring out how we're going to get kids to races or just going and having a fun ride and just enjoying company, he's that guy," Rector says. "He loves cycling, and it's been a part of his life and he's just devoted to sharing that with everybody."
Olson's motto is: You've got to pass on all the kindness and generosity you've received in your life.
"It's true. That guy gives a ton," says Rector, a longtime mountain biker who's known Olson for more than a dozen years. "I could go on with stories about kids who wanted to learn how to ride. He would send out an e-mail, and we would all piece parts together and get a kid on a bike in two or three days."
Tough to Tame
Olson's go-for-it attitude in life and parallel gratitude to the sport was the result of turbulent growing-up years.
"I was a troubled kid, that's why I bounced around," Olson explains. His longest stay in one place was south Florida. Other stops along the way included Medford, Ore., and Reno, Nev. He dabbled in a range of sporting activities. "I played tennis, and I'd break rackets and do all this other stuff."
Nothing else encouraged concentration like road cycling did, he says. Though Olson did jump into longer road races over the years, his strength lay more in short-distance criteriums and time trials, both of which are favored by more powerful riders.
"With cycling, you're just too tired to be upset at the end. It was a great way to channel my energy," he says.
For all the things he was looking for in life—exhilaration, friendship, focus and purpose—"cycling was the thing that I found worked for me."
Olson's knack for the fast-paced sport was noticed by a real estate developer in Boca Raton, Fla., who provided financial support for competitive cyclists, including the then 15-year-old aspiring racer.
"His name was Mike Carey," he says. "We'd race all up and down the East Coast. He really made that possible. He took care of me. If I needed entry fees for nationals or whatever he would pay for them. He would help me with plane tickets."
Olson says he never really made it to the head of the pack in the seriously competitive world of road racing. And despite the significant support he received from people like Carey, he still had to dig deep to find funding to expand his racing pursuits.
Olson's attempt to make it in the demanding European racing circuit, where he ranked as elite amateur, was paid for on his own dime. "I never really made the jump from serious amateur to professional," he says.
Six years later, with Carey's contributions in his heart, Olson began taking the reins of his life at the age of 21.
His version of the classic Sun Valley arrival story goes like this.
It began on a warm late August evening in 1991. Stepping out of his aunt and uncle's Winnebago after dozing off during the long drive up from Boise, a bleary-eyed Olson was struck by the pleasant nighttime air. The silvery glow illuminating the adjacent ski runs didn't hurt either. "I had no idea what we had driven through," he says. "It was a full moon on Baldy in August so it was 80 degrees out at night. It was perfect."
Early the next morning, the enticements just kept coming.
"We went to breakfast at the old Buffalo Café. It was the breakfast place at the time. They had fresh jam, really cute waitresses and great food." Appetites satiated, they headed over to Backwoods (Mountain Sports) to rent mountain bikes. "It was my first mountain bike with a shock I'd ever ridden," he remembers with reverence.
Heading north from town, the trio hung a left and parked at one of the nearest trailheads. "We went and rode Fox Creek. I just had the time of my life. I was just blown away at how great the riding was, how picturesque. The whole thing was mind-blowing to me."
At that time, Olson was living what some would consider a comparably picturesque existence on a 22-foot sailboat moored in San Francisco. Suddenly, a tiny little town tucked into the Douglas fir- and aspen-covered mountains of Idaho was competing heavily for his affection.
The definitive moment came over a beer and a burger at Ketchum's Grumpy's.
The trio was seated at a table next to a guy and about a dozen of his friends who were celebrating his birthday. "They were literally singing songs," and not limited to "Happy Birthday" Olson recounts. "I mean this is something you don't see just anywhere, right?"
Given all he had seen and done in those few hours, Olson could hardly contain himself, and said as much. "I'm like, 'This is amazing. This place is just unbelievable.'"
It was one of those Sun Valley days that seem to last forever. Only the setting sun suggested otherwise. And a roundtrip plane ticket meant Olson would be flying back to San Francisco in less than 24 hours.
Getting up to leave, Olson attempted his goodbyes.
But the guy at the next table over was having none of it. "Why the rush?" he taunted.
And then he said something seemingly benign, but ultimately pivotal.
"He's like, 'Well, don't leave.'"
For a rootless—and young, he notes—soul like his, the simple statement was alluring in a way few would understand. "It was like a fairytale."
A few hundred dollars richer due to the generosity of his aunt and uncle, Olson took a chance and stayed on.
It will be 20 years this August 23.
"It's just worked ever since," he says. "This town has taken incredible care of me."
That day was also the start of Olson's transformation from street racing to mountain biking. "I fell in with a bunch of guys who rode mountain bikes here, a lot of the guys I still ride with today."
And the valley lured another convert to the fold.
This summer, he will be sponsoring about 10 local bike races. For the tenth year in a row, he's organizing the Wood River Cup, a series of short-track mountain bike races in Croy Canyon west of Hailey every Wednesday in June. He's considering holding a long-course mountain bike race sometime in July as well.
Olson is also bringing back the popular July 4 Hailey Criterium, which takes place right after the town's Fourth of July parade. Come fall, he'll once again be organizing the late-season cyclocross races at Crosstoberfest. Rounding out the valley's bike racing season in November will be a cyclocross series.
It's a lot of work promoting these races and the real payoff is not monetary, it's the support Olson receives from the valley's bicycling community. They understand what an asset he is for the local two-wheeled crowd.
"He's pretty much kept mountain biking alive in our community," says India Wysong, a local racer who started entering Olson's races in 2004.
In 2007, Wysong started the all-women's Mud Honey cycling team to get more women involved in the local bike racing scene. Olson's help and support have been crucial to the Mud Honey's success. "I started doing the short-track races down in Hailey, and I wanted more women to join in on the fun and agony of those races."
A lot of locals go to Olson for all sorts of advice on putting on an event or just about racing, Wysong says. "He's got a great racing history of his own. He's a wealth of knowledge. He's brought a lot to our community because he used to race in Europe. He deserves a lot of recognition."
And like his mentor Carey, Olson has become a mentor for youth here. He is the driving force behind Sun Valley Road & Dirt, a highly popular program that offers local mountain biking camps for kids each summer.
With the perspective of more than four decades, and a family of his own, Olson realized that it wasn't all about being the fastest or striving to be at the head of the pack.
The transition in thinking has pushed him instead to promote others, as Carey had done for him, from the sidelines. And having tired of working for wages, and having earned enough financial success to do so, he opened his combination restaurant and bike shop.
Located right on Main Street in Hailey, the Powerhouse is a place you can watch your bike being worked on while biting into a juicy, grass-fed-beef burger and downing a brew off the lengthy beer list, 140 in all at last count. His meals are made from the wares of local growers and ranchers.
With the Powerhouse, Olson has taken bits and pieces of different bike and coffee shops and beer joints he's seen over the years as a traveling racer and thrown them all together under one roof.
"To me, this is like the things I wish this community had, and I put them here. It was baby steps."
It's been nearly a decade since Olson introduced another of his novel business ideas: a mobile bike-repair business, briefly docked, to be brought back this summer because last summer found him tending bar far more than working with bike tools.
The bar time kept him in sales, though. Patrons come in for a beer, see some of the unusual and hard-to-find bikes and frames hung around the walls as décor and a negotiation is frequently launched.
Olson told Bicycling magazine last year that "we have a cooling-off period," meaning, a sober safe distance inserted between talks to avoid impulse remorse.
Rector sees the Powerhouse as just one more thing that's given the south valley a much stronger presence on the local mountain biking scene. "With everything that's going on in Hailey, with all of these new trails we're getting built on BLM land and more to come, it's changing the interface of the Wood River Valley."
Like Olson's passion for biking, the Powerhouse's rise was tempered with adversity. Now in his 40s, he had barely gotten a nice life lined out for himself, with a wife, Tanya, and two children, Davis, 10, and Otto, 6, when he found out he had Parkinson's disease.
The disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. Often starting with a barely noticeable tremble in one hand, it can alternately cause overall shaking, freezing of movement entirely, the loss of facial expressions and difficulty speaking.
Celebrities like Michael J. Fox have brought the disorder to the forefront, even filming a public service announcement where he allowed himself to be shot in full sway, without medication, to illustrate the effects.
Tanya says nothing is taken for granted in the Olson household these days.
The self-proclaimed purist who defends his lack of interests outside of biking, beer, family and friends with: "I like something, I do it. I do a lot of it," is the same guy post-diagnosis, just more focused, she says.
Married to him for 13 of their 18 years together, Tanya says he has started putting deadlines on accomplishing his dreams.
"He's always wanted to do what he's doing now," she says. "It was less than a year (after his diagnosis) when he opened the Powerhouse."
And she says the Billy she fell in love with for his ethic—work and otherwise—is still intact.
Although Olson admits the diagnosis has made him think differently about things, he insists it was family that provoked his decision to reprioritize things both on the bike and in his work life.
"It hasn't changed my life all that much. It's just the tremor. It's different for everybody."
With the characteristic signs of his disease—frequent, unanticipated body tremors—increasingly apparent, he's relying on what he's learned about pacing to navigate today's demands.
"This last 12 months has been spent totally focused on the restaurant. This year I'm hoping to put a lot more back into the bike shop."
Looking at the arc of his life, one could say Olson was lost for 20, found for 20 and now is in maintenance mode.
Even with the recent changes in his life, Olson counts on cycling to keep it all in perspective, saying, "It brings you back to center."
Olson wishes Carey could see how well his life has turned out—a fact he attributes to the support he and others gave him at that crucial stage in his life. "He never asked for anything from me. I'd love for him to know what I've done. I feel like I've taken my debt to him and totally given it to the next kids."
And he's learning how to hang with the pack rather than try to outrun it.
"What I learned, maybe 10 years ago, was that it's OK to not be the fastest one out there as long as you're having a good time."
And when a guy who's spun such a fulfilling life out of a chance meeting at Grumpy's invites you to join him in a good time, you can trust he knows what he's talking about.